Colds and flu

17 September 2010

The price of popularity: flu

Being popular comes at a price: well-liked people get flu on average two weeks sooner than most others, experts report.


Being popular comes at a price: well-liked people get flu on average two weeks sooner than most others, two experts report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

"Being at the centre of the network tends to make you happy but it also exposes you to disease,"  said James Fowler of the University of California, US, who worked on the study.

Fowler and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University in Massachusetts said the so-called friendship paradox could be important to working out how a flu pandemic or some other nasty virus is likely to behave.

Early response

"This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response," Christakis said.

This is how the friendship paradox works. If a person is asked to name a friend, that friend is statistically likely to be more popular than the original individual.

That is because if people are asked to name a friend or two, they are more likely to choose someone who connects them to others, Fowler says. An example is a party, where most guests would name the host as a friend as opposed to the wallflowers at the fringes of the gathering.

Fowler and Christakis are experts on social networks and have used their methodology to show that obesity, smoking and other behaviours are directly related to a person's friends, and the friends of their friends.


They teamed up again to study the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic among 744 Harvard students.

"Our method goes and picks people at random and then we ask them who their friends are and then we study the friends," Fowler said.

"We studied the H1N1 pandemic last fall in a small group of students. This friend group - they got the flu about two weeks earlier than the other groups."

Fowler would like to work with other experts on tracking disease, such as Google Flu Trends, a free service of Google.

Google Flu Trends works on the premise that people's web searching behaviour matches circulating disease. When people feel ill, they look up terms such as "fever" and by watching when and where these search terms become more common, health officials should be able to track disease trends.

It does not yet work perfectly but Fowler thinks there may be a way to get the popular "friends" at the hubs of social networks to volunteer to let their web searches be monitored in such a database.

"This is one way we could really turn friends into our crystal ball," Fowler said. - (Maggie Fox/Reuters Health, September 2010)

SOURCE: PLoS One, September 15, 2010.


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules